The Day the Earth Caught Fire
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The Day the Earth Caught Fire

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Science fiction has always been one of my favorite genres. Like many, it was my first favorite genre. As a boy, I would watch any Sci-Fi film that appeared on TV. There was a television movie show called ‘Million Dollar Movie’ that attempted to emulate the theater experience. It was on that show I first saw ‘The Day the Earth Caught Fire.' Even at my tender young age, I recognized something special about this film. This movie is part of a series of incredible British Sci-Fi of the early sixties. Like many Sci-Fi films of that era, the world’s fears of nuclear war pervaded the themes presented in the flick. The difference between British and American movies of the time is the British movies depended less on a monster created by radiation concentrating more on the human reaction to a world in crisis. ‘The Day the Earth Caught Fire’ is one of the best examples of films depicting this type of catastrophic time and place. Younger audience members may react a bit differently to this film. It was untouched by the Cold War paranoia many of us grew up watching. The quality of the film will impress audiences of all ages. The film presents the story of a London investigative reporter, Peter Stenning (Edward Judd). Stenning is bitter and disillusioned. A thorn in the side of his friend and editor, Bill Maguire (Leo McKern).

 

Once Stenning gets his teeth into a story, he will not let go. London and the rest of the world are in the grips of an unexpected heat wave. The temperature rises without letup as the population wonders as to the cause. Stenning encounters a young woman, Jeannie Craig (Janet Munro), who works as a switchboard operator in a Ministry office. Once again, younger viewers might have to consult Google for exactly what that job description entailed. Jeannie helps the reporter with his investigation leading to a startling revelation. The world governments are withholding a terrible secret from the public. Simultaneous nuclear tests by the Americans and the Soviets have pushed the Earth off of its normal axis and tilted it over disrupting the normal weather patterns. The world was on the brink of burning up. The public learns the truth hedonistic riots break out around the globe, plunging society into mass chaos. Rather than dwelling on the usual theme of distrust of the government for their deception row far more realistic progression of the story is pursued, humanities despair over certain impending doom.

The only actor in this classic that will be readily familiar to the American audiences is McKern.He appeared in the enigmatic British spy thriller, ‘The Prisoner,' portraying the most popular Number 2. Don’t let the relatively unknown cast deter you from experiencing this amazing example of cinema. The performances may verge on over the top, but they are excellent. Judd plays the paranoid reporter to the hilt. He has a code of behavior, which mandates his actions. Stanning is a lady’s man in his always hitting on Jeannie yet gentleman enough to never take advantage of her. He is the sixties rough and ready, hero. Munro plays Jeannie more than the typical hapless female of the day. This film was produced at the very beginnings of the feminist movement which reflected in her performance. Jeannie was aware of the risk in telling the secret to the reporter, yet she was morally compelled to act in a way that put the welfare of others above all else. Ms. Munro demonstrated incredible strength and control in the way she portrayed Jeannie. McKern is excellent as the acerbic editor. Caught between his loyalty to his position at the paper and his friendship and admiration of presenting Stenning in a far more complicated manner than most Sci-Fi flicks. In all the cast works together in a synergistic way creating ageless performances.

It has been a standard trope in science fiction to take a prevalent public fear and enhance it for shocking effect. Typically, the source of that dread is a current cutting-edge technology or ongoing threat to public safety. Natura; disasters is always suitable placing the awesome, uncontrollable power of nature. Having the planet’s orbit draw closer to the sun is an inevitable extinction level event. The added plot device of having the cause of the orbital change be the escalating nuclear weapon’s race is a touch that places the blame for destroying the world squarely on humanity’s shoulders.

This would become a prophecy even now reaching fulfilment. It is generally accepted in the mainstream scientific community, that the extensive use of fossil fuels and reliance of industrial processes generating hothouse gasses, has steadily increased the basic climatic temperature of the planet. While a subject of controversy by some, the topic is constantly in the news. This film released almost sixty years ago, foreshadowed the connection between advancing technology and the potential global catastrophe. These factors have made the movie more relevant today than during the year of its theatrical release. the potential renewed interest in the movie has resulted in a new high definition release. ‘The Day the Earth Caught Fire’, has been a favorite film of mine for several decades.

 

Val Guest directed this iconic film best known for other British science fiction such as the ‘Quatermass Xperiment.' He was a master of the genre able to combining gritty reality with unmistakable style. Mr. Guest does not hit you over the head with the dilemma contained in the plot; he builds slowly in an organic way. At first, the population takes the oppressive heat in stride, going to the beach, public pools and amusement parks. Then, the state has to ration the dwindling water supply until finally water is coveted as more precious than gold. Guest knows how to tell a story so that the audience is drawn in. So many contemporary films are so overt, not trusting the viewers to understand the plot. Guest appreciates his audience and the fact that they can comprehend. This respect for his audience comes across with a building tension rather than the all too familiar ‘this is where…’ going through the public’s mind. Hitchcock had a similar style; it is more rewarding to build than reveal. While many will feel the special effects lack the quality of today’s CGI effects, remember, it was movies like this that paved the way for the Jurassic Parks and Star Wars. It is films like this that the special effects masters watched as kids, in amazement, striving to improve the craft.

Several years ago, there was a DVD release of the film that was excellent for the media. Considering the age of the film., the original video was amazingly crisp and clear, apparently made from a transfer utilizing a pristine vaulted print. The source material has been given an expert remastering producing a 4K print. The resulting transfer to Blu-ray results in a previously impossible experience that holds up against anything out there. The version presented here contains the intercut stock footage not seen since the film was released. While in black and white the opening and ending were shot through an orange gel to help the audiences feel the oppressive heat. The soundtrack is considerably improved from the original DVD audio, remastered to a DTS two channel mono which may come over better if you bypass the digital audio output and filter it through your Prologic circuits in Theater mode. While the features are minimal, a few TV and radio spots, the real gem is the commentary by Val Guest. This review was recently made and permits the director a chance to look back at his work. The track comes across like a kindly grandfather chatting by a fireplace to his attentive grandchildren. It is halting at times, sometimes a bit out of order but remembers this is a 90-year-old man looking back four decades. Whether you are a fan of Sci-Fi or general movie history, this is a must have to complete your collection.

Posted 1/2/05            02/17/2017                Posted  10/16/2018

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